The MVP Candidates*
Super Bowl MVP voting is inherently faulty. Ballots are cast immediately after the game, if not in the final minutes. The voter block consists of 16 media members who watched with one eye on the action and the other on their laptop screens, and by fans who watched at home amidst parties, commercials and chatty friends. And so usually the MVP goes to whoever has the best stats, regardless of how those stats came to be. This can lead to MVP awards for someone like Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown, who caught two easy interceptions off miscommunication between Steelers QB Neil O’Donnell and his receivers in Super Bowl 30. Or Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith in Super Bowl 48. Kam Chancellor dominated that game, but Smith was the one who happened to catch and return a deflected Peyton Manning pass for a pick-six.
If Super Bowl MVP voters had time to study the game, the process would be different. But that’s a pipe dream. The Super Bowl is a made-for-TV event; instant reaction, understandably, feeds that drama.
Nevertheless, the rules of the pipe dream will drive this article. Below are Patriots and Falcons’ five likeliest non-quarterbacks who could be the true most valuable players of Super Bowl 51.
1. RB LeGarrette Blount
We never view the Patriots as a run-oriented team, but only the Cowboys and Bills had more rushing attempts in 2016. Pounding the rock means running the clock, which is good strategy when facing a Falcons offense that’s averaging 39 points an outing since Dec. 11. And New England’s style of ground game matches up well to Atlanta’s defense. With Blount in there, it goes purely north and south, with a variety of double-team blocks between the tackles and, at times, underrated fullback James Develin chaperoning at the point of attack. If you can defeat a Falcons defensive line that’s more suited to penetrate an outside zone running game rather than an inside power game, you can get the 250-pound Blount to the second level against rookie middle linebacker Deion Jones. At 222 pounds, Jones really struggles when bigger bodies reach him.
2. WR Chris Hogan
The Patriots have a lethal horizontal quick-strike passing game, but this season they’ve become increasingly potent throwing vertically. They do this primarily against zone defenses that are structured in ways that allow inside receivers to run deep routes against linebackers. The Falcons are one of those defenses. They employ many of the single-high safety zone principles as the Steelers, whom Hogan gouged in the AFC Championship Game for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
3. S Patrick Chung
He has virtually no chance at winning MVP because a great game for him will show nothing on paper. There’s no stat for plays that a defender prevented from even happening. Next to Julio Jones, running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman are the Falcons’ most dangerous weapons. Man coverage is the best way to handle Atlanta, but playing it can be tricky because few defenders are versatile enough to cover Freeman and Coleman in the passing game while still contending with them on the ground. Chung, however, is one of those few defenders. He’s physical, agile and has experience playing all over the field. If he takes the backs in man-to-man and has a good showing, his box score will be sparse. For in man-to-man, your eyes are on your target, not the ball, so it’s more likely that you break up a pass than intercept it. And if you’re really doing your job, you won’t have a lot of tackles because the guy you’re guarding won’t get touches.
4. S Devin McCourty
He’s the other guy who could take Freeman or Coleman—at least in a passing situation. Putting your top coverage safety on a running back is unconventional, but that’s what the Patriots did against Le’Veon Bell on third down two weeks ago. McCourty, a converted corner, can win that type of coverage matchup. If he’s not used in this capacity on passing downs, he’ll either be doubling Julio Jones over the top (a critical assignment), or serving as a rover in the middle of the field, where Matt Ryan has historically (though not this season) been somewhat prone to ill-advised decisions. Given his versatility, McCourty will be the most important player in New England’s pass defense.
5. NT Trey Flowers
Meet the man who will spar one-on-one with Falcons Pro Bowl center Alex Mack, at least on passing downs. The Patriots like to employ defensive fronts that align the second-year defensive tackle directly over the center. From there, Flowers relies on his pristine technique. On running downs, Flowers moves all over, depending on the formation. With defensive tackles Malcolm Brown and Alan Branch being gap-pluggers (great ones, in fact), Flowers is New England’s unofficial designated penetrator.
1. WR Julio Jones
No need to bother going over how dangerous the sixth-year pro is with the ball in his hands. The other side of the Jones discussion pertains to his impact when the ball is not in his hands. By now you’ve probably heard: the Falcons this season were 6-0 in games when Jones had fewer than 40 yards. In two of those games (Week 14 at Los Angeles and Week 15 against San Francisco) Jones didn’t play. But in those other four, he was on the field and at the center of the defense’s focus. Atlanta is great at spreading the ball around not because their other weapons are dynamic (only Freeman and Coleman are truly unique talents), but because the defense must go to such great lengths to eliminate Jones. Those other weapons are left in the most favorable one-on-one situations. Ryan, a shrewd ninth-year veteran, is great at exploiting that.
2. C Alex Mack
Not only has he stabilized the Falcons’ pass protection, but his work as the lynchpin of their outside zone rushing attack is a big reason why the Falcons are here. A successful outside zone run starts with the center crossing the face of a nose shade tackle and sealing him back inside. The Patriots, however, pose a different challenge. They often align their defensive tackles directly over the guards (as opposed to one tilting toward the center and the other playing 3-technique). It’s much harder to run outside zone against this, which is why Mack must be prepared to execute inside zone, where he and one of the guards double-team the tackle and work up to the linebacker. Mack’s performance here will factor heavily into Atlanta’s run-pass balance.
3. S Keanu Neal
There are two ways he’ll be used in man coverage. One is straight up on the tight end, which he’s done for most of the season. In this game, that means facing Martellus Bennett—an important weapon in New England’s offense, particularly in the underneath passing game. The other way is Neal being a free defender. Given the Patriots’ emphasis on crossing patterns, he’d most likely roam underneath, in the middle of the field. (If Neal is doing this, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell would be on Bennett.) However it shakes out, the first round rookie is critical to countering New England’s dominant interior passing game.
4. RB Devonta Freeman/Tevin Coleman
Not to diminish either player by lumping them together, but they’re great for similar reasons. Both are tremendous outside runners (Freeman with his explosive wiggle, Coleman with his one-cut downhill burst). Both are also lethal in the passing game. They each had over 400 yards receiving this season (the Falcons were the NFL’s only team that had two backs do this). They can win from the slot or out wide. And their ability to line up anywhere allows the Falcons to dictate other matchups across the formation, most notably for Julio Jones.
5. WR Mohamed Sanu
Where his damage will come is in three-receiver sets. In those, he’s likely to face cornerback Logan Ryan one-on-one from the slot. (The quicker Malcolm Butler would be assigned to the small-but-speedy Taylor Gabriel; Eric Rowe and a safety would have Julio.) One-on-one is the best you can ask for in the NFL; no defense plays a coverage that leaves an eligible receiver unguarded by design. Sanu is a sneakily polished route runner and has the size to overcome Ryan’s physicality. He’ll be featured in the red zone, which makes him a crucial piece against a bend-but-don’t-break Patriots defense.
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